Carnegie Mellon’s Amy Wesolowski Tracks Spread of Malaria Through Cell Phone Records In Africa
October 15, 2012
Contact: Chriss Swaney
Carnegie Mellon University
PITTSBURGH—Cell phones are a matter of life and death for Carnegie Mellon University's Amy Wesolowski, lead author of a study suggesting new strategies for tracking malaria epidemics, which kill 665,000 a year.
The study, recently published in the journal Science, used millions of cell phone records to document the impact human movement has on malaria disease patterns in the densely-populated nation of Kenya.
"Governments and other organizations have often concentrated malaria control efforts in low-infection regions," said Wesolowski, a Ph.D. student in CMU's Department of Engineering and Public Policy. "Those initiatives cost less and provide a sense of accomplishment, but ultimately may not be successful because, in those areas, there are many travelers from high-infection areas."
The part of Kenya with the highest malaria infection rate is the western edge around Lake Victoria. The study suggests the best plan for attacking the disease would be to concentrate on that area, because many of its residents carry the infection with them when they visit surrounding regions with a much lower disease rate.
A potential benefit from the study might be to send text messages to people traveling from high-infection zones to other parts of the country, urging them to use bed nets or other cautionary materials.
"The study tracked the cell phone records of nearly 15 million people over one year," according to Wesolowski. "As expected, the study found there was a lot of travel between outlying areas and the south capital of Nairobi, which has 3 million residents," she said. In Africa, there were 280 million mobile phone subscribers in 2008, and the number of subscribers is expected to double in the next five years.
But researchers were surprised by how much the entire population traveled from one region to the other, and particularly from the Lake Victoria area to districts around it.
The study, which also involved researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the University of Florida, the National Institutes of Health and the University of Oxford in England and Kenya, is part of an ongoing trend known as mHealth, which uses mobile phones for research, diagnosis and treatment of diseases.